Rowan Williams on Vaticanum II and Henri de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, adressed to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday. He spoke about the connection between contemplation and evangelisation. His whole lecture can be read here. In the introduction of his adress Williams touches upon the importance of Vaticanum II. The council was a rediscovery of ‘evangelistic concern and passion’. Then, he continues by saying:

But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.

It’s a remarkable passage in the Archbishop’s adress, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s in a certain sense brave. De Lubac’s specific view on the history of doctrinal development is by no means generally accepted in today’s Roman Catholic church. No wonder, as his words surely imply an incisive critique on the (neo-)scholastic tradition from Cajetan until the 20th century.

Secondly, the words of Rowan Williams imply a qualified view on the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. This rupture is, at least partly, ascribed to the doctrinal developments in the Catholic church of the late 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Reformation is in this view a re-action, instead of the initial action. Of course, opinions may vary about the nature of this reaction. De Lubac, for instance, was of the opinian that both the Reformation and Jansenism were deviations of the true Catholic doctrine, an ‘over-reaction’. J.H. Walgrave however, a Dutch Catholic theologian and philosopher, claimed the opposite, maintaining that both the Reformation and Jansenism were, in a certain sense at least, the legitimate continuation of (augustinian) Medieval theology.

Finally, the words of Rowan Williams evoque an augustinian anthropology of longing to God and the only possible fulfillment, by embracing his grace. As De Lubac in a number of writings underlined, there is not such a thing as ‘natura pura’, meaning a conception of human nature that is capable of reaching its natural potency. According to this doctrine, the supernatural longing for God does not properly belong to human nature. It’s an ‘extra’, an addition to human nature. The Archbishop certainly is right about the implications about our anthropology for evangelisation. But I suppose it has implications in the direction of sacramental theology as well. The sacramental debate in the Reformation period might be read in this light. In the theology of the Counter-Reformation we might detect a tendency to ‘supranaturalize’ the sacramtents, especially the eucharist, by emphasizing its mystery and incomprehensibility. The Reformation, on the contrary, seems to downplay the importance of the sacraments, may be not so much in theory, as well in practice. In the Swiss Reformation the habit of celebrating the Lord’s supper only four times a year became the standard practice, suggesting that it is an ‘extra’. For me, it’s an open research-question whether this tendency is also inherent in Calvin’s sacramental theology or not. Further study must show.